You wouldn't expect to describe a movie titled The Death of Stalin as timely.
But the term very much applies to this caustic, darkly funny political comedy from satirist Armando Iannucci (Veep, In The Loop), here using the demise of the murderous Soviet dictator to tell a surreal, screwball story about authoritarian leaders, their toadies, and the "false narratives" that attend acquisition and wielding of power.
The movie is set in 1953, when Stalin drew his last breath, but don't be surprised if some folks look familiar.
Certainly Death of Stalin has struck a nerve in Russia, where the movie has been banned by authorities. Putin, perhaps with an eye to posterity, has been trying to rehabilitate the reputation of the deceased tyrant and mass murderer — a task that will challenge the skills of his spin doctors.
On the other hand, they're not in a position to say no. That's the queasy joke at work in the prologue, where a symphony conductor (Paddy Considine) desperately reconvenes the orchestra when he learns that Stalin has a requested recording of the evening's live performance. All for naught. Stalin collapses on his bedroom carpet before he can finish listening. He's in a coma when discovered an hour later by staff.
For Iannucci, who loves to mock the craven, unprincipled pursuit of power, the scenario is an antic delight and plays to his talent for hectic plot turns and (pardon the expression) rapid-fire dialogue. A living Stalin demands servile obedience, a dead Stalin invites a mad scramble for vacated power, and we see his inner circle of underlings toggle madly back and forth between these two modes, as the drooling dictator fades in and out of consciousness.
Key figures include Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi) who immediately looks for allies, and finds one in Red Army hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Their most formidable adversary is Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the secret police, known to carry out Stalin's orders ruthlessly and to indulge his own perverse appetites.
Less imposing is Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), thrust into the leadership position as a compromise candidate, but hilariously overmatched. To master the moment is to keep track of the competing false narratives — Iannucci's term — that surface as different factions become briefly ascendant. Power determines what is true, and as power changes constantly, so does official truth.
Sometimes this yields surreal laughs. Soviet apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) survives by accepting the ongoing lie that his wife is dead, even when Stalin's apparent demise brings her out of the gulag and back into his apartment.
At other times, the comedy bumps uneasily against the actual horrors of the regime — the head of a firing squad stops murdering prisoners mid-queue, when his whimsical orders change. (For a second, I thought of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and an exasperated Boris Badanov going through the pile of contradictory "Kill Moose," "Save Moose" directives in his inbox).
A flummoxed Malenkov gives up — "I can't keep track of who's alive and who's dead."
Comedy doesn't get much blacker. But the laughs come at the expense of the powerful — the movie suggests, for instance, that Stalin effectively killed himself. His anti-intellectual crusade led him to kill so many competent physicians that none are available to treat him.
There is some truth to this, and some truth to many of the incidents referenced here — Stalin's nitwit, nepotism-protected son (Rupert Friend) really did attempt to cover up the air-crash death of the Soviet hockey team by hastily training a new group of stand-ins.
Who'd believe it? The answer, suggested here, is anybody with the inclination or the incentive to do so. This is where Iannucci's false narrative farce hits uncomfortably close to home, as our culture grapples daily with new disclosures about the disturbing reach and scope of disinformation, accelerated by technology and spread enthusiastically by its factionalized consumers.